A Rolling Stone cover story on Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev isn't on the stands yet but it's already generating controversy, with at least two retailers announcing Wednesday that they will not carry the issue
A close-up picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev scheduled to hit shelves Friday looks more like a young Bob Dylan or Jim Morrison than the 19-year-old who pleaded not guilty a little more than a week ago in the Boston Marathon bombing, his arm in a cast and his face swollen in court.
Has the magazine, with its roundly condemned cover, offered the world its first rock star of an alleged Islamic terrorist?
The same image of Tsarnaev was widely circulated and used by newspapers and magazines before, but in this context it took on new criticism and accusations that Rolling Stone turned the bombing defendant into something more appealing.
"I can't think of another instance in which one has glamorized the image of an alleged terrorist. This is the image of a rock star. This is the image of someone who is admired, of someone who has a fan base, of someone we are critiquing as art," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor and the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Public outrage was swift, including hard words from the Boston mayor, bombing survivors and the governor of Massachusetts. At least five retailers with strong New England ties — CVS, Tedeschi Food Stores and the grocery chain the Roche Bros. — said they would not sell the issue that features an in-depth look into how a charming, well-liked teen took a dark turn toward radical Islam. Stop & Shop and Walgreens followed suit.
Tsarnaev is not referred to as Tsarnaev in the article. The magazine uses his playful diminutive instead in a headline: "Jahar's World." With cover teasers for other stories on Willie Nelson, Jay-Z and Robin Thicke, it declares for the Tsarnaev story: "The Bomber. How a Popular, Promising Student was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster."
Rolling Stone did not address whether the photo was edited or filtered in any way in a brief statement offering condolences to bombing survivors and the loved ones of the dead.
"The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens," the statement said.
That's little consolation for James "Bim" Costello, 30, of Malden, Massachusetts, who needed pig skin grafts on most of his right arm and right leg after the bombing. His body was pebbled with shrapnel, including nails he pulled out of his stomach himself. Three of his close friends lost legs that day and others suffered serious burns and shrapnel injuries.
"I think whoever wrote the article should have their legs blown off by someone," struggle through treatment "and then see who they would choose to put on the cover."
The accompanying story, he said, "just seems like a cry for attention" from Rolling Stone.
Lauren Gabler had finished her fourth Boston Marathon and was two blocks from the finish line explosions that April day. At first she thought the Rolling Stone photo, released on the magazine's website and Facebook page, was of a model or a rock star.
"All of a sudden you realize that's the Boston bomber," said Gabler, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area. "The cover almost tricks you into what you're looking at. I haven't read the article yet, and I know it will probably be quite in-depth, but my initial reaction is that the photo that's being used almost makes him look like a good guy."
Rolling Stone said the cover story was part of its "long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day." And the magazine has had plenty of covers featuring people outside the realm of entertainment, from President Obama to Charles Manson.
Putting criminals and alleged criminals on the covers of major magazines is justified if they are major news figures, said Samir Husni, a journalism professor who heads the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. It's digitally manipulating a photo that never is, said Husni, reached by phone on vacation in his native Lebanon.
"They'll probably regret it later," he said of Rolling Stone's handling of the cover. "Even if it wasn't doctored it's going to bring those negative reactions."
Hundreds of Facebook and Twitter commenters condemned the magazine. Many cursed. Others expressed sadness and still more vowed never to read or purchase the magazine again.
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino spoke for them in a letter he dashed off to Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner accusing the magazine of offering Tsarnaev "celebrity treatment" and calling the cover "ill-conceived, at best," in that it supports the "terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their 'causes.'"
The letter goes on to call the cover an obvious marketing strategy and concludes: "The survivors of the Boston attacks deserve Rolling Stone cover stories, though I no longer feel that Rolling Stone deserves them."
What does the controversy say about the culture today? It's a culture that has already produced an online fandom for the attractive young bombing suspect, including young girls calling him "hot" and promising to help clear his name. At his hearing last week, a dozen or so girls wore T-shirts and stickers bearing his face.
Jamieson had this to say on that score:
"If you took that picture and you walked into an audience three months before the bombing and you said, 'Here, this is a cover of Rolling Stone,' what would people say? They'd say, 'Ah, a new artist emerges on the national stage and Rolling Stone is doing a cover. What is his name? Well I guess it's Bomber.'"